Trinity Sunday 2022
June 12, 2022
Zion Lutheran Church + Nampa, ID
One of the most famous and most well memorized verses in the Bible comes from our Gospel, reading for today. Of course, I’m talking about John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him will have eternal life.” Children to adults, various languages, athletes, and more. It’s a wonderful thing, and should be encouraged all the more, yet the meaning of the verse grows immensely given the context of Jesus’ statement.
First, and importantly, this comes in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin who approaches Jesus by night out of fear of what his collogues might think and do, and along with Joseph of Arimathea, would take the crucified and dead body of Jesus from the cross and bury it in the grave.
Nicodemus approaches Jesus at night assuming that he’s got it all figured out. He gives what he apparently thinks is a generous and profound interpretation of Jesus’ work when he says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one else can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” (John 3:2). But this was not enough. For Nicodemus, the signs that Jesus had been doing was the indicator of God’s presence with Jesus. Nicodemus recognizes Jesus as “from God” because of the signs, but Jesus shifts the focus from what He had been doing in the signs to what the Spirit does and then to what Jesus speaks and came to accomplish by the will of the Father. Jesus didn’t merely have God with Him, He is the Son of God come down to earth. Only by Jesus does birth “from above” happen, which is a sign, a miracle by Jesus, for He alone came from above. The recalling of Numbers 21 and the story of the bronze serpent shows that only through God’s chosen means are His people saved. And so He would be lifted up, that anyone who would look to Him in faith, and only to Him, would be saved.
Which brings us verse 16, which again, is one of the best known verses, but also one of the most misunderstood. Often people think this verse means, “God so loved the world” as in God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son. But that is not what the word “so” means here, and that is not what Jesus means when He speaks to Nicodemus. The question isn’t “How much does God love?” It is not about quantity. But rather, “How does God love?”
A slightly different translation could be rendered thusly, “For God thus loved the world…” Or as 1 John 3:16a states, using exactly the same word Οὕτως – “In this way we know love, that He laid down His life for us…” So, “God in this way loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.”
Again, Jesus is explaining how God loves the world, not how much. How do you know that God is still there watching? How do you know that God still cares in the middle of disaster? How do you know that God loves the world? How do you know that God loves you? The way we know God’s love for us is the sign, the miracle, of the cross.
The answer to your fears, your doubts, your questions, your worry is Christ crucified. Jesus who was sent by the Father to a world that rejects Him, accuses Him, kills Him. And He knew this would happen and still goes through with it. This is the way that He loves Nicodemus. This is the way that He loves the world. This is the way that He loves you. Love is found in the action, in the will and commitment for the good of the other, not in the passion of the emotions.
But let there be no mistake. There are those in the wilderness bitten by the poisonous snakes because of their sin, who by their pride refused to accept this love, refused to trust the promise of God, refused to believe He who was lifted up for the salvation of the world. Love given, love rejected. Many of you know the pain of rejected love. A young romance not reciprocated. A divorce where one walks out on another, abandoning marital vows to love and cherish until death parts made before family, friends, and God Himself. A child speaking angrily to his parent, “I hate you.” God knows that pain. He knows the hurt of rejection, of broken promises, of being spat in His face, of giving His all, even the life of His Son.
There are consequences to this rejection, devastating effects of unbelief, and we dare not forget John 3:18, “Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” And it is the most unloving thing to avoid warning people of hell, of treating God’s sacrifice of Jesus so lightly that a Christian would reject God’s justice. There is only one way to be saved, and that is faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who died upon the cross, taking the condemnation of the sin of the world upon Himself and who was raised on the third day. Where there is no faith, where the love of God in Christ is rejected, there is no salvation, no eternal life, but condemnation and eternal hell. Salvation is the natural, the proper, work of God. Condemnation is called the “alien” work of God. Though condemnation is a result of rejection of God’s love, God wants all men to be saved. The world is only saved through faith in Him.
Jesus is very clear, and loving, in speaking this truth. Those who don’t believe are condemned already. They are “dead in their trespasses” as both Eph. 2 and Col. 2 say. They are literally, the walking dead. And dead men can’t live. Which brings us back to Jesus’ first answer to Nicodemus – “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” You must be born again, a birth that comes by the means of water and Spirit, a birth of faith by baptism into Jesus’ death and resurrection.
You who born again by baptism and faith in Christ are not condemned. You have eternal life now. Physical death is not the end of life, because for you who believe, life is eternal. Faith, believing and trusting that Jesus has died to save you from your sins, receives the love of God in Christ. One of the best parts is, we don’t deserve it. We don’t deserve to be loved, and yet we still are. We deserve condemnation, but we receive eternal life as a free gift of God’s grace. This is how He shows His love, that while it is not deserved, it is still given. Your worthiness of God’s love does not depend on the weakness or strength of faith, but upon Christ’s merit. And believing in Him, you have eternal life.